I can’t recall exactly how it happened, but recently, gathered with good friends at a local restaurant and while staring at a $30 plate of pasta, the conversation switched from politics and sports to red hot dogs.
Specifically, a question was posed regarding preferred preparation of the iconic “Red Snapper,” and the group reached a unanimous decision: either skewered and roasted over an open fire or otherwise fried in a pan while ice fishing.
The decision was reached so quickly and with such conviction, that root of the matter simply could not go unappreciated. In short order and after brief deliberation, a proclamation was issued by the group: Food cooked outside tastes better.
It is hard to deny food’s appeal when prepared and eaten outside. Something magical and somewhat hypnotic happens when ruby-colored backstrap hits a hot cast iron pan atop a Coleman stove and begins to sizzle and spat in a bath of butter or bacon grease. Any person within 100 feet will surely take notice, and once the fresh cut onions are introduced to the pan, it’s almost certain the crowd will tighten a circle around, aahing and oohing and likely drooling. When ready, most will grab a piece or two bare-handed from the plate and smile as they savor each bite. Compliments to the chef will be given and a good-natured tug of war over the last piece elicits laughter from the onlookers.
What fishing, canoe or hunting trip would be complete without the planning of at least one meal intended to be enjoyed in the elements? Most often, the adventure includes good company comprised of friends or family in some scenic or meaningful place. The setting and scene is highly anticipated, often an annual, seasonal or otherwise predictable event.
Maybe it’s this kinship and sense of freedom that helps the food we eat in the outdoors taste so much better. Being surrounded by those we love and appreciate typically makes us happier, especially when engaged in activities and at locations equally enjoyable. Research indicates this is likely the result of an increase in dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin and serotonin levels, or, in plain terms, “feel good” chemicals in our brains. When we feel good, other senses tend to also be stimulated so it would make sense that food consumed at these times and in these places would taste better.
The outdoors offers us many things, the most notable of which is fresh air. Our lungs crave it, our senses yearn for it and our existence demands it. Being outside refreshes us, heightening our senses, improving cognitive abilities and tapping into our more primitive thoughts not so reachable within the confines of walls and windows. Senses like smell and taste, among others, become sharper and more noticeable while outside. Being outside and in nature calls to our most basic and ancient instincts. Food is essential to survival and our primal drive to hunt, fish and gather begins to wake, creating certain cravings.
Take, for instance, a warm summer evening outside on the back porch. While you likely don’t take all that much notice of the smell of your neighbor’s freshly cut grass or cigar smoke, when the smell of burgers on a grill hits you from three doors down, the reaction is immediate and undeniable: a palpable sense of craving and survival not present in your kitchen.
Last year, the barbeque grill industry was worth just north of $8 billion. You can find a grill on the porch of more homes than not and while meals prepared on them may not hold the same romance of a river bank 15 miles from nowhere, it still illustrates mankind’s need to connect with their food in a more natural setting. We all know people who have $5,000 stoves in their kitchen, yet nearly all their summer meals are prepared outside on their $200 grill. Why leave the comfort and security of a well-lit, well stocked kitchen and comfortable dining room to battle mosquitoes, black flies or the elements just to enjoy a simple meal on the deck?
So, does food actually taste better outside? Maybe it does. I think most would offer an affirmative vote but really, as with most things, it’s subject to individual opinion.
There are certain scientific theories and research that suggests it does though and those are undeniable. While those may help to analytically dissect and address the question, maybe we can also choose to look beyond altered brain chemicals and heightened senses to find a more suitable answer: Simplicity.
We live in such a clouded world where the simple things often find their way to the back shelf and life becomes diluted and bland. The outdoors requires us to slow down and bring simple ingredients, forcing us to make the food we eat there more about flavorful memories and less about presentation. To be honest, that $30 plate of pasta was delicious but I can’t help but wonder how much better it would have been with some red hot dogs on the side.